I was happily surprised to find this second book by Celeste Ng every bit as good as her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. There are two key similarities between these two books, although the books are quite different. The first is conceptual. Ng takes a close look at a family that, on the surface, seems to have everything, and then she shows you the problems brewing underneath. Both are books about decent, mostly likeable people who love each other, yet face serious issues.
Another similarity is that Ng uses the technique of starting the book where it ends, and then circling back. I love when a writer does this really well, and Ng does. We begin Little Fires Everywhere knowing a few intriguing facts. Mother Elena Richardson is watching her family home burn down; her four children and her husband, thankfully, were not in the house. She thinks her youngest daughter, Izzy, is to blame. We’re also told that last night she watched her tenants, a mother and daughter, leave their rental unit, dropping off their keys and driving away in the night.
The story then goes back to when Mia Warren and her teenage daughter Pearl become tenants, and their lives become intertwined with the Richardsons. The Richardsons are an apple-pie American family: four kids, two girls, two boys, all of them teenagers. The elder boy and girl are successful and popular, but occasionally not so nice to their younger siblings. Elena and family struggle to understand the youngest daughter Izzy, who I’ll describe as rebellious though it’s an oversimplification.
In contrast, Mia and Pearl have lived all over the country, sometimes out of their car. They have no money, few possessions, and Pearl knows nothing about her father or her mother’s family. Mia is an artist, a talented photographer who says she needs to roam from place to place to produce her art.
Pearl sees in the Richardsons the family and stability she’s never had, and Izzy gravitates to Mia’s artistic nature and quiet strength. This sets up obvious conflicts in the two families, conflicts that worsen when both families become indirectly involved in a complicated child custody issue.
Trying to write a summary of this book makes clear just how complex it is. As with her first book, Ng handles complicated issues and characters in a seemingly effortless way – the book is a pleasure to read but you realize only gradually how layered it is.
For example, at the beginning of the book, Elena describes the neighborhood she grew up in and lives in today, Shaker Heights. She owns an extra home which she rents out to the most needful and deserving. From this small amount of information we learn a lot about Elena. She values order and planning and community. She’s cognizant that her family is well off and she wants to give to those who have less. And finally, she’s a bit controlling in her choice of tenants.
Once again Ng has created characters, both teenagers and adults, who can’t be easily categorized, though they might seem that way at first. As mothers and as individuals, Elena and Mia have great qualities and problematic ones. We learn less about Pearl and Izzy, but they are no less interesting as characters.
As a childfree reader, I sometimes find it hard to get into novels that are too focused on having children. I worried that this might be the case here, but it wasn’t. Having children, and raising them, is certainly the focus of this book, but Ng presents issues in such a thoughtful way (like abortion, for example) that it wasn’t one of those books that hits you over the head with how important it is to have children.
This was one of the last books I read in 2017, and easily one of the best.